Posts Tagged ‘the pyramid’

The Pyramid

September 19, 2020

In 1996 Ismail Kadare had already been short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (for The Palace of Dreams in 1993) and would go on to be selected for inclusion in at least the long list another four times (2007, 2008, 2009, and 2013) before eventually winning the Man Booker International Prize when it was awarded to an author for their body of work rather than for a particular novel. During the nineties much of his work was being translated not from the original Albanian but via French translations – as is the case with The Pyramid where David Bellos has translated for the translation of Jusuf Vrioni (presumably, had he won, the prize would have been split three ways).

The Pyramid, like The Palace of Dreams, is one of Kadare’s historical novels, set, on this occasion, in Ancient Egypt. It begins with the ascent of the pharaoh Cheops to the throne, and his comment that “he might perhaps not wish to have a pyramid erected for him.” The resultant panic among courtiers and advisers leads to the realisation that nobody is entirely certain why the building of pyramids began in the first place:

“They were hunting for the idea that led to the conception of pyramids, the secret reason for their existence: and that was what kept eluding them.”

Eventually they tell the pharaoh that the construction of the first pyramid was the result of a crisis, but:

“The cause of this crisis was unheard of, strange, indeed quite baffling. An unprecedented, perfidious cause: the crisis had not been provoked by poverty, the late flooding of the Nile or by pestilence, as had always been the case previously, but, on the contrary, by abundance.”

In other words, the first pyramid was built to eliminate prosperity as this was becoming a threat to authority. It should be obvious by now that Kadare’s novel is not a meticulously researched historical recreation but a rather savage satire – the first project suggested to make people poorer, for example, is to dig a bottomless pit. It’s always tempting at this point to read the novel as a satire of Albania, written as a historical novel to avoid censorship, but, though there is some truth in this, Kadare’s understanding of the absurdities of dictatorship are such that to confine his barbs to one particular regime seems unnecessarily reductive. Kadare’s description of the pyramid – “domination of the rabble; the narrowing of its mind; the weakening of its will; monotony; and waste” – could apply to many a leader’s vainglorious building project.

The pyramid requires lengthy preparing – the sourcing of stone, the building of access roads, and, of course, the arrival of cartloads of whips. Almost everyone involved in the planning lives in perpetual fear, particularly those who are designing the secret entrances and exits:

“All sorts of pretexts were found for convicting and suppressing them, but the real reason for such measures was well known: to bury the secrets with the inventors.”

In this atmosphere of paranoia, rumours of plots are commonplace: one, for example, begins with a glowing block of basalt which is apparently intended to “transmit nefarious rays so that, once in the pyramid, it would draw an ill fate upon it.” Torture and execution are accepted working conditions – a government member who suggests that the construction be suspended to demonstrate that the pharaoh is immortal (an obviously obsequious comment) is dissected alive, having his tongue removed first for daring to utter this contradiction to official policy. By far the greatest number of deaths, however, are caused by the construction itself, and at points Kadare describes this stone by stone:

“As if it had nothing more urgent to do than fulfil the quota of corpses spared by its predecessor, the eleven thousand three hundred and seventy-fifth stone wrought havoc amongst its carriers.”

Further complications are caused when Cheops insists he doesn’t want to be placed beneath the pyramid but in the middle.

There is a sense that Kadare is having fun writing this novel, with throwaway comments such as describing a delegation of Greeks as “backwards” and ridiculing the Sumerian ambassador’s written report (the Sumerians having invented an alphabet) which, transcribed onto clay tablets, is being transported in two carts and “weighed about the same as the side of a house.” But perhaps he is having more fun than reader. The novel is short but its jokily superior tone becomes a little wearing, especially as it almost entirely lacks characters. Cheops is the only named figure to appear with any regularity but he remains as aloof from the reader as he does from his subjects (“Cheops visage remained impenetrable”). In fact, it is only when grave robbers appear in a coda that we feel among real people. The novel is successful as far as it aims to be. Its critique of power – irrational, trivial absurd, yet fatal – is both accurate and amusing, but Kadare has been equally clear-sighted in other novels which offer a more human counterpoint. For those who are new to his work, this is unlikely to be the best place to begin.